Dirt bike riders race on off-road tracks, using modified motorcycles to handle tight turns and jump over obstacles. Many dirt bike enthusiasts dream of turning a love of racing into a lucrative career. While the top Motocross and Supercross stars earn millions, riders who don't make it onto one of the professional industry teams earn nothing beyond prize money and bonuses based on performance.
How Dirt Bike Compensation Works
Dirt bike races sponsored by the American Motocross Association, or AMA, offer prize money to winners. Every participant receives a piece of the pot, with the size of each individual's winnings determined by how he places in the race. European races, known as the grand prix, do not pay prize money.
According to Racer X Magazine, prize money in these races represents just a small portion of racer compensation. Today's top racers ride as part of a team under the name of one of the world's five largest motorcycle companies. These include Kawasaki, Suzuki, Honda, Yamaha and KTM. These riders earn the bulk of their incomes through salaries paid by the team. They also earn bonuses based on performance and may receive a variety of endorsement deals. A 2008 article in Racer X Magazine estimated the majority of riders belonging to one of these teams earned $100,000 or more each year.
In a 2007 article, USA Today estimated the top three dirt bike riders in the world earn $6 to $10 million per year. These figures include team salaries, endorsements, bonuses and prize money. This article also estimated that another 13 to 15 riders at the top of the sport earn at least $1 million per year, while another 30 earn $100,000 or more.
Motocross Action Magazine reports that in 2005, top rider Ricky Carmichael earned a total of $8 million -- only $228,000 of which was prize money. A 2006 Sports Illustrated article revealed that Carmichael's base salary with the Suzuki team is $4.75 million. The remainder of his salary comes from bonuses and endorsements.
A select few top riders race without the benefit of a team, according to Racer X Magazine. Known as privateers, these riders's earnings are often limited to prize money. The top privateers can earn $100,000 to $200,000 a year.
Each AMA race offers a different purse, along with varying ways of dividing this money by placement. In a 2005 article, Motocross Action Magazine revealed that premier Supercross riders finishing the year in 20th place could expect annual prize money earnings totaling $29,480. This reflected the rider's finish in an entire series of races over several months. The 10th place finisher for the season earned $36,400 in prize money, while the rider coming in fifth earned $48,000. The top Supercross racer for the season took home $228,000 in prize money. Riders participating in Lite classes -- designed for newer and younger riders with less powerful bikes than those used in traditional Supercross -- earned less than half this much.
Salary for Average Riders
While approximately 50 riders at the top of this sport earn $100,000 or more, the rest earn only what they can win in terms of prize money and bonuses, with no base salary. The majority of prize money is won by the top racers. If one of the non-team riders were to finish in 20th place at one Supercross event, his prize would be around $1,460 as of 2005, according to Motocross Magazine. To even have a chance at the $29,480 purse for finishing 20th for the entire season, the rider would have to travel to more than a dozen races across the country over the course of just a few months, paying for all the expenses himself. He would then have to beat many of the team riders, who often have bigger and better equipment. This means the average rider earns very little, and what he does earn will likely be eaten up by travel and equipment costs.